The following is a excerpt from my book, Songbirds: Pioneering Women in Jamaican Music on the vocalist Sheila Rickards:
The Daily Gleaner on March 31, 1963 stated that she was born a “preemie” weighing only three pounds at birth. She was born just seven months into her mother’s pregnancy in 1942. Sheila got her start at age 14 when she appeared on the Lannaman’s Children’s Hour, a talent show broadcast on RJR. She then got the chance to compete at the Vere Johns Opportunity Hour in 1956 where her talent for singing jazz was recognized. She was hired to perform with the Baba Motta at the Myrtle Bank Hotel and the Glass Bucket for long runs, as well as on the North Coast and for Sonny Bradshaw. “From Colony Cottage Hotels on and then Nassau. There, it was the Goombay Club for nearly a year of making warm friends with every not she sang. Spots at the Junkanoo Club there too, singing onetime with Billy Cooke and his Combo who did a spread in Nassau at the time. And at the Nassau Beach Lodge. She says, ‘I had one of the swingingest times of my life!” states the Gleaner article which goes on to list another number of performance venues that booked Rickards. She was billed as the “I’m gonna live girl” after one of her performances at the Ward Theatre Pantomime where she sang a song with these words.
Sheila Rickards’ father, Ferdinand Arthur Rickards, was a contractor for the Sugar Manufacturers Association. He grew up in St. Catherine and was a performer—a singer, actor, and comedian. He helped foster his daughter’s love for music by purchasing records for the family phonograph. There were over 200 records in their Greenwich Town home, which was quite a substantial amount in the 1960s for a family to own. Her father said, “Sheila was born to be a singer, she’s been singing since she was four years old, started music when she was seven, very musical like her mother and sisters.” Her sister, Thelma, sang on the radio, on ZQI.
Sheila Rickards performed opened for Sammy Davis Jr., when he came to Jamaica and she became well acquainted with him and his wife. In fact, she even babysat their eight-year-old child for a couple of days. Sheila traveled to the United States to try to further establish her career. That same Gleaner article states, “And now Sheila is in America and the house, they [her parents] say, is too quiet without her. She stays in America with the family of Mrs. Benskin who visited Jamaica last year and was so impressed with Sheila’s talent that she insisted that she come to the USA and train. She will, go to a school to do dramatics and to develop her singing and acting. Singing and acting she wants to make her ‘career!’ And she will also study dress-designing which she says she will make her ‘profession.’” Dan Monceaux, director and camera operator for a documentary on Sheila Rickards which never came to fruition says, “Many people knew of her, but not of her whereabouts. Evidently she emigrated to the USA, and married, likely changing her name in the process. I believe she had ambitions to make it in the USA, but these dreams were never realised.”
The film was constructed around a song that Rickards recorded for Bunny Lee called “Jamaican Fruit,” a haunting song whose lyrics talk of the slave trade and is a fairly obvious reference to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Monceaux says, “The song ‘Jamaican Fruit’ has very strong lyrics for its time, and our research revealed that it was actually a cover (with lyrical variation) of a song by American soul singer Zulema Cousseau (her artist name was simply ‘Zulema’).” Zulema’s version was called “American Fruit.” Rickard’s version states, “We came from a distant land / our lives already planned / we came in ships from across the sea / and never again our home we’d see / and now we’ve become Jamaican fruit of African roots.” It talks of how their children’s last names were erased, they were commodities, and it encourages an uprising that is not present in Zulema’s version. “The time has come for us to join hands / let’s not be punished by the rules of this land / now that we’re aware of what we must do / let us no longer be fooled, no longer be fooled / let us all be black, let us all be black / and Jamaican fruit of African root / I wanna be black, let me be black, black is beautiful.” Rickard’s original version was only released unofficially in Canada, according to Monceaux, but his co-producer, Chris Flanagan, negotiated rights to re-release the song. Her whereabouts are still unknown.
Listen to a sample of Sheila Rickards’ “Jamaican Fruit of African Roots” from Shella Records HERE
Sheila Rickards & Mapletoft Poule Orchestra’s “Say and Do” HERE
More info on Shella Records, the documentary, and quest to find Sheila Rickards HERE